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McFeely: On his way out at NDSU, Bresciani one of chosen few trying to remake NCAA

NDSU president was selected to two elite committees that hope to transform the NCAA, the body that governs college sports. The work of one is completed and will be voted on in 2022. The work of the other begins after Jan. 1.

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North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani delivers the State of the University address Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, in Festival Hall on the NDSU campus. File photo by Dave Wallis / Forum News Service
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FARGO — Dean Bresciani is on his way out as North Dakota State's president, fired by the State Board of Higher Education for something or other, but that doesn't mean he's not valued elsewhere.

Bresciani was selected to two elite committees that hope to transform the NCAA, the body that governs college sports. The work of one is completed and will be voted on in 2022. The work of the other begins after Jan. 1.

When an interviewer made a remark about the obvious irony of the situation, though, Bresciani expertly ignored it and kept talking about the NCAA Constitution Committee of which was a member. That was the subject of the interview to which he agreed and he was sticking to it.

"We think we did a pretty damn good job," Bresciani said.

Bresciani was one of about two dozen committee members tasked with restructuring the NCAA's constitution, slimming it down by about three-fourths to make the organization more nimble and responsive while putting more authority in the hands of the three divisions (I, II and III).

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Sound like bureaucratic gobbledlygook? Think of it in these terms: While the NCAA is a monolithic dinosaur top-heavy with dusty old men in suits, modern college athletics is NIL opportunities, the transfer portal and academic incentive money.

The NCAA is a phone book. Modern sports is 5G.

Threatened with obsolescence and, more critically, intervention by Congress, the organization decided to reboot.

Bresciani pointed to the kerfuffle last spring over the disparity in amenities between the men's and women's basketball tournaments. The women were dealt a hand from about 1950.

"You look at that situation and wonder how it got to that point," Bresciani said. "It wasn't that the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing, it was this finger doesn't know what the finger next to it is doing."

So Bresciani and his committee mates, including chair and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, met over the course of three months with the charge to "transform" college sports through rewriting the NCAA constitution.

The draft document on which they landed shifts authority from the national office and gives it to the separate divisions, conferences and schools. The proposal significantly reduces the size of the NCAA's Board of Governors from more than 20 to nine. Student-athletes are given a voice at the divisional level.

If these changes don't seem "transformational," or even non-obvious, there are many who feel the same way.

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Representatives of Division II and Division III were vocal during the process of rewriting the constitution because they felt the issues and changes being discussed were driven by money and power instead of transformational change. They were particularly worried, Bresciani said, about revenue allocation from the top down.

Division I makes the money, other divisions benefit.

But the proposed constitution that will be voted on Jan. 20 at the 2022 NCAA Convention maintains existing revenue allocations and championship opportunities for each division (4.37% for Division II and 3.18% for Division III) — figures unchanged in 25 years. Conferences will maintain oversight of their own budgets and distributions to members.

Each division will be able to set its own rules for rules enforcement processes and how athletes can make money from sponsor endorsements through name, image and likeness.

There will be an emphasis across all divisions on the physical and mental health of athletes, and priority will be placed on diversity, inclusion and gender equity.

"I think this will do a lot to improve the perception of the NCAA, to make it more responsive and efficient," Bresciani said. "I think it was viewed, rightly, as a monolithic, out-of-touch organization that needed to become more nimble and responsive to contemporary demands on it."

One great motivator was the threat of congressional interference. With the NCAA coming under blistering scrutiny over NIL, the transfer portal, gender inequity and uneven rules violation enforcement, Bresciani said the organization solving its own issues was preferable over political oversight.

"Congress has had a number of bills that would give federal power to do some of the things the new constitution does," he said. "This had to be a pretty dramatic change in the way business is done. I think we've created a different enough model that people will be satisfied.

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"The alternative is Congress will do these things. That alternative is much worse than any compromise."

Bresciani's committee work for the NCAA isn't finished. He was named to the organization's Division I Transformation Committee, charged with addressing Division I's biggest challenges. It will begin meeting in January. Given the disparate membership in Division I — from Ohio State and Alabama to non-football and non-scholarship programs — it promises, in Bresciani's words, "some evocative conversation."

At least that trait — and Bresciani's expertise — is admired in some circles of higher education.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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